A new flight simulator that has had experienced test pilots praising its unrivalled realism is about to be opened at Tangmere Military Aviation Museum.
The English Electric Lightning Flight Simulator was officially unveiled by Air Chief Marshal Sir William (Bill) Wratten last week, after being road tested by a succession of pilots who flew the iconic Cold War fighter and agree that "it flies just like the real thing".
The remarkable achievement is down to the hard work of a group of committed volunteers at the Museum who used their years of experience in the RAF and aviation industry to plug a state-of-the-art computer programme into original analogue instrumentation. The result is a flying experience that mimics the handling and power of the supersonic jet fighter – built almost entirely from scratch.
"We were contacted nearly two years ago by an Air Training Corps squadron who said they had a Lightning simulator and they were throwing out and were we interested?" explains Education Officer Dudley Hooley.
"Not knowing what it was we said 'yes' – we usually say yes to everything – but what turned up was a piece of scrap metal, a chassis with some wooden side panels, a canopy and nothing else – no instruments, no seat."
Original cockpit instrumentation has been hardwired to make it respond like a real Lightning
Undaunted, Dudley and his team saw the potential of the "scrap metal" before them, quickly forming a project team who would eventually turn scrap into aviation gold.
New side panels were built and the Museum's stores were plundered to populate the cockpit with genuine Lighting instruments. Others were purchased from the open market.
The vintage controls were then hardwired via an interface unit to make them respond like Lightning controls and to make the simulator fly like the real thing.
A notoriously powerful jet interceptor, the single seat English Electric Lightning quickly endeared itself to pilots who appreciated its Mach-2 speed and raw power. One test pilot memorably said: "I was in total control of the aeroplane until I released the brakes".
"That’s pretty much the way the Lighting flies," confirms Dudley. "It is just quite the most exciting experience you can have.
"We have a Lighting test pilot called Peter Ginger and he has flown the simulator for us and been our consultant as to whether it flies like the real aeroplane or not. It's now been flown by about ten ex-Lightning pilots and about three ex-test pilots and they all come out with a big grin from ear to ear and say this is just the greatest fun."
New side panels have been made for the simulator. Image: Richard Moss
Such is the simulator's authenticity, staff at the Museum are recommending that only adults with some experience of flying should book one of the 15-minute simulator slots (accompanied by a simulator trainer) when it opens to the public in late August 2010.
"We are so thrilled by the success of this," adds Dudley who is keen to pay tribute to the volunteers who gave their time and expertise to make the project happen.
"Their skills would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds if we were to go to a professional company, but the fun we have had putting this thing together in the last eighteen months has been amazing and we are all incredibly proud of it."
Volunteers at the Museum are now considering converting a World War Two Link Simulator into a Spitfire simulator. Plans are in place to further develop the Lightning simulator next year by expanding the flat forward view to 140–160 degrees, together with cockpit buffeting and a g-suit that will inflate with g-force.
Keep an eye on the Tangmere website for details of the official opening of the Lightning Simulator.
Images: Richard Moss